“Campbell’s pork and beans.”
“With boiled hot dogs.”
“Mom made tuna casserole.”
“My mother made that too.”
A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, one can of tuna, one of peas, fed a family of five.
My husband and I delight in comparing the particulars of our origins. Phil’s childhood was mostly in basement apartments, mine in trailers. I was born in New York, he in California. He grew up in Denver, I in Florida, but our mothers were raised poor in 1930s New York City, and that commonality is as strong as any other bond between us.
Born into households without education, our mothers got no further than high school themselves. As young girls, both were sent to be live-in mother’s helpers for wealthy families. Neither of them cared to talk about those experiences.
Upward mobility was common then. Many in both our families attained middle class incomes. Not our parents. Phil’s mother raised him and his sister on her own. My father finished the sixth grade without learning to read and write.
In my family, you rinsed and smoothed tin foil to be reused, refolded paper bags.
Rubber bands accumulated on doorknobs.
Cars came used and Dad was always working on them.
Mom was a waitress, a nurse’s aide.
Dad was a truck driver, a mechanic, had grease under his fingernails.
When I was growing up in Florida you could get a work permit at fourteen. With my first checks I bought groceries, bought my own clothes from then on. When we finally left the trailer for a house, I gave my mother something she’d never have bought herself: a fruit bowl and candlestick set for the dining room. The gift was a sign of my aspirations, although I couldn’t have said what they were.
High school was easy. My GPA earned a surprise college scholarship, and I was relieved to have the future decided for me. Mom asked what an “English major” was. Dad felt uneasy about why I was going. I didn’t know what an English major was, just loved lit classes. My parents’ anxiety confused me. I was dimly aware that going to college should be a good thing.
A lifetime later, teaching at an alternative school in Denver, I watched a black student doing a brilliant job on his oral history exam. His brother and cousin, seeing this, began interrupting, making jokes. Sabotage. The other teachers were baffled, but I got it. If he started doing well in school, he’d leave them. My parents’ anxiety was well grounded. Once I went to college, I never really came home again, became a visitor.
Mom worked graves at the hospital. Dad went to work at dawn, woke me before he left. I got my brothers up, set out juice and cereal. As we headed for the bus, Mom got home, dark shadows under her eyes. After school, she was asleep. I made the boys change out of their school clothes, do their homework, fixed snacks, sent them out to play, did dishes, started dinner, all while trying not to wake my mother, who never got enough sleep. I had Saturday retail jobs, babysat evenings. A working class hero is something to be.
That accidental scholarship sent me to the University of Florida, opened doors I hadn’t known existed. Cantering in their unexpected light, I discovered Dylan Thomas, Fellini and Shostakovich, heard the distant rumble of revolution coming from California, had to go west to see for myself, the bit in my teeth.
My father listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.
He flipped through Popular Mechanics magazines.
My mother read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
Most of my childhood we had no TV.
Going out to eat was at Howard Johnson’s and only when New York relatives came to visit.
Phil and I have done better than our parents did, but it doesn’t change how hard they worked for the little they earned, doesn’t change our history. Americans pretend diligent industry lets you rise through socio-economic classes reliably as the sun, but that’s never been true. They think you can leave class behind the way you shrug off an old coat, but that’s not true either. Someone suggests the rich represent survival of the fittest and my kneejerk anger flares. I want to snarl, “You don’t know shit.” Or bitterness flickers over Phil’s face when someone talks about art school. He never had that chance.
We recognize these ill-trained mongrels in each other, help bring them to heel. After all, it’s not other people’s fault they weren’t raised poor, nor is it ours that we were, however much each group tends to castigate the other. No easy rising to it, class in America. However far afield we travel, we take the trappings of our beginnings with us.